CITY GALLERY: This exhibition curated by artist/photographer Louis Porter and showing at City Gallery explores the Melbourne City Council’s collection of engineering photographs taken in the decade following the 1956 Olympic Games.
This exhibition curated by artist/photographer Louis Porter and showing at City Gallery explores the Melbourne City Council’s collection of engineering photographs taken in the decade following the 1956 Olympic Games. Porter’s intervention into the fields of engineering and historical record aims to break down perceived distinctions between archival photography and art photography allowing viewers an insight into the constant cycle of construction and destruction occurring in the city. Porter also engages with the archival form in his own work, which also forms part of this exhibition.
The main body of the exhibition features forty selected black and white prints by unknown photographer(s) from the engineering department of the Council. The images originally functioned to record the work done by the department and as such they depict the city in transformation. Porter suggests that recording the engineering work is not the only function that these photographs can fulfil. The selection and presentation of the images by an artist in the gallery encourages us to contemplate them in other ways. A formal quality, an uncanny detail, or a brief slice of life can jump out of the photograph. Advertisements, vehicles, people and shopfronts compete for attention alongside the roadwork, demolitions and signage the photographer originally aimed to capture. While some elements, like the architectural forms of shopfronts and church steeples are a recognisable part of contemporary Melbourne, the unfamiliar elements such streetcars, fashions and advertisements of the day that highlight the changes in the visual fabric of the city over time.
In one image with the caption ‘Interior painters shop’ we look into a light filled space as sign writers in overalls go about their work. Along the walls are freshly painted signs such as ‘All day parking’ and ‘Children’s Welfare Department’. There is a beautiful quality to the lettering being produced in this workshop. Signs from this era may still be in use today but would be faded and covered with decades of grime. Here the camera captures the crispness and clarity of the freshly painted words.
Another image depicts industrial shoes being tested by placing the toe under a heavy concrete slab. The shoe is tipped up and suspended at an angle near the centre of the frame and surrounded by horizontal planes of the slab, a metal grate, a patch of grass in the foreground and in the background the vertical lines of corrugated iron wall. If it was seen on its own, it would be assumed to be the work of a modernist artist. The striking composition conveys humour, style and whimsy belying its original utilitarian purpose.
Taken as a group these images convey a sense of the rapid progression of industrialisation and modernity in this period. One in particular strikingly captures this, captioned ‘Flinders St overpass demolitions sth side Sept 1958’ it shows the demolition site of an historical building. A heap of rubble in which we can see pieces of decorative architectural detail lies alongside the foundation stone inscribed 7TH October 1891. A contemporary counterpoint the group of historical black and white images is Porter’s Deer Park 2008, a large scale colourful print. A wire fence with neon pink netting strewn over it stands in front of an orange brick wall. As Melbourne expands outwards housing estates have become the new sites of rapid development.
The exhibition also features drawer units which slide out to reveal more mini archives of images and materials, some by the artist and some from the Council’s collection. In one compartment there are pictures of horse troughs taken from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. One contains a series of Porter’s photographs of Civic Guides in different towns and urban settings. In another Porter has laid out photographic storage envelopes from the collection spanning different decades and printing businesses, each with their own graphic style.
Through the thoughtful editing and individual perspective of Porter the material in Melbourne’s Art and Heritage Collection offers intriguing glimpses of everyday life overlaid onto the story of the city transforming itself. The work included by the artist also furthers the discussion of photography’s use as a tool for record and analysis.
Record and Analysis: Engineering Photographs from Council’s Collection.
City Gallery, 12 November 2009 – 30 January 2010
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